Introduction: In December 2009, representatives of 192 nations—not to mention thousands of journalists, activists and business executives assembled in Copenhagen for the 15th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC). The goal was to strike a new international agreement to replace the Kyoto Protocol, due to expire in 2012—one that would lead to meaningful reductions of greenhouse gas emissions. Expectations were great, and it was evident that one of the key players would be the People’s Republic of China. After all, China—the world’s largest emitter of greenhouse gases—has taken huge strides in the past decade, toughening up its environment protection laws, fighting pollution, planting forests, and investing aggressively in renewables and energy efficiency. In the lead-up to Copenhagen, China announced it would cut its carbon intensity by 40-45 percent below 2005 levels by 2020.
In the end, Copenhagen was a flop. No binding treaty covering both developed and developing countries was established, nor was a deadline set for reaching such an agreement. No global target for 2050 was created. Major emitters reached an accord that committed the world to halting the rise in global temperatures to two degrees Celsius, but the measures it contained were insufficient to deliver that outcome.
There were many reasons for the disappointment of Copenhagen, but in the public mind at least, China bore a good deal of responsibility. Beijing’s aversion to quantifiable commitments led it to oppose one that didn’t even apply to China directly, namely the critical pledge that by 2050 rich countries would cut emissions by 80 percent compared to 1990 levels. China and other high-emitting developing states opposed the principle of international verification, agreeing only to “international consultations and analysis.” The Chinese argued for removing references to Copenhagen as a way-stage on the path to a legally binding treaty. China’s representatives hardly acquitted themselves well in the conference venue either, with Premier Wen Jiabao dodging important meetings with U.S. President Barack Obama and sending a more junior official instead. Britain’s then-Climate Change Minister, Ed Miliband, called China out on its behavior, leading China’s Foreign Ministry to reply: “The remarks against China by an individual British politician contained obvious political schemes to shirk responsibilities toward the developing countries and provoke discord among the developing countries.” That politician is now Britain’s alternative Prime Minister. A widely-cited article in The Guardian was headed: “‘How do I know China wrecked the Copenhagen deal? I was in the room.”
China’s predicament in Copenhagen illustrated in miniature many of the features of China’s awkward relationship with the United Nations: the high hopes; the genuine, often startling, progress; the continuing disconnect between China’s weight and its strategy; the conflicting desires to be seen as a great power and a poor country; the tacking between arrogance and uncertainty; and the hurt feelings on both sides when expectations are crushed. Copenhagen put the following question in front of the international community: how far has China progressed toward achieving the status of a ‘‘responsible stakeholder,’’ urged on it by then-U.S. Deputy Secretary of State Robert Zoellick in 2005?7 Examining China’s approach to the UN could help answer that question. The research for this article, which was supported by the Australia—China Council, included two dozen confidential interviews conducted in 2009 and 2010 in Beijing, New York and Washington, D.C.